James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne.
James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.
Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.
Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
An expert on being wrong shares his thoughts. (Reuters)
A few hours ago I said (sincerely) that a number of prominent officials who had set the stage for today's disaster in Iraq deserved respect for their silence as their successors chose among the least-terrible of available options.
I unwisely included Dick Cheney, former vice president and most ill-tempered figure to hold national office since Richard Nixon, on that list.
If I'd waited a little while, I would have seen a new op-ed by Cheney and his daughter Liz in (where else!) the WSJ denouncing the Obama administration's fecklessness about Iraq and much else. They say, unironically, about the current occupant of the White House:
Rarely has a U.S. president been so wrong about so much at the expense of so many.
You want a specimen of being so wrong about so much at the expense of so many? Consider the thoughts of one Richard B. Cheney, in a major speech to the VFW in August 2002, in the run-up to the war:
Another argument holds that opposing Saddam Hussein would cause even greater troubles in that part of the world, and interfere with the larger war against terror. I believe the opposite is true.
Regime change in Iraq would bring about a number of benefits to the region. When the gravest of threats are eliminated, the freedom-loving peoples of the region will have a chance to promote the values that can bring lasting peace.
As for the reaction of the Arab "street," the Middle East expert Professor Fouad Ajami predicts that after liberation, the streets in Basra and Baghdad are "sure to erupt in joy in the same way the throngs in Kabul greeted the Americans." Extremists in the region would have to rethink their strategy of Jihad. Moderates throughout the region would take heart. And our ability to advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process would be enhanced, just as it was following the liberation of Kuwait in 1991
"The freedom-loving peoples of the region will have a chance to promote the values that can bring lasting peace." Yes, that is exactly how historians will register the lasting effects of the invasion for which Cheney was a major proponent and decision-maker. Along with the rest of his forecasts. What a guy.
The big difference between the pro- and anti-Iraq war camps a dozen years ago was not about the odiousness of Saddam Hussein, nor (with the exception of exaggerated "smoking gun will be a mushroom cloud" scare-talk) an awareness of the damage he could do in his own country or elsewhere.
Instead the difference turned on whether you imagined that an armed invasion, by the world's dominant high-tech military, working mainly on its own (since it had failed to amass UN or broadly allied support), was on balance likely to "solve" the problem, much as the Civil War "solved" the problem of Confederate breakaway and World War II solved the problem of Nazi Germany. Or whether, on the contrary, an American invasion was unlikely to make things better, likely to make them worse, and certain to entangle American lives, fortune, diplomacy, and honor in the resulting unsolved mess for many years to come.
If you believed the former, you could be confidently pro-war. If the latter, the reverse.
Last night I pointed out that many of the people who had cocksurely argued in favor of the war were now resurfacing unchastened to offer "expert" views. Now let's consider views from some people who by contrast have earned a claim on our attention, in particular about Iraq.
1) William Polk, and Chuck Spinney. I've mentioned them before, many times. William Polk—a longtime scholar and diplomat whose first Atlantic article about Iraq was published in 1958—for his views on Syria and Afghanistan and related themes; Chuck Spinney—a longtime and prescient defense analyst whom I first wrote about in National Defense—for his views on strategy in all theaters, from American politics to the Middle East.
Now they are together, with Spinney providing an introduction to a new essay by Polk about America's largest strategic choices. Sample from Spinney:
This week Mr. Obama opened the door to the possibility of bombing ISIS Jihadis in Iraq to support the floundering Shi’ite government we installed. Yet, as Patrick Cockburn of the Independent has reported, the ISIS Jihadis in Syria and Iraq are coalescing into one proto-caliphate in their common Sunni areas. [see map at top of this item].
This raises the real possibility that we could end up arming and bombing the same Jihadis. Such a development would increase the potential of unknowable blowbacks throughout the entire region, especially for the Kurdish ethnic groups in Syria, Iraq, Turkey, and Iran, as well as the state of Turkey itself.
Sample from Polk, on the American predilection for military "solutions" to international problems:
The rate of success of these [military] aspects of our foreign policy, even in the Nineteenth century, was low. Failure to accomplish the desired or professed outcome is shown by the fact that within a few years of the American intervention, the condition that had led to the intervention recurred.
The rate of failure has dramatically increased in recent years. This is because we are operating in a world that is increasingly politically sensitive. Today even poor, weak, uneducated and corrupt nations become focused by the actions of foreigners. Whereas before, a few members of the native elite made the decisions, today we face “fronts.” parties, tribes and independent opinion leaders. So the “window of opportunity” for foreign intervention, once at least occasionally partly open, is now often shut.
There is no way Washington should attempt to reenter this Iraqi agony again. The U.S. already destroyed the political, economic and social infrastructure of Iraq, turning it into an anarchic free-for-all of every clan for itself.... There is no longer any state to provide protection. And you do not dare turn your security over to an untested, untrusted new state structure for a long, long time....
Iraq, perhaps with help from its two neighbors [Turkey and Iran], must come to terms with its own internal crisis. It can do so; sectarianism as a guiding obsession is not written in stone. Strong sectarian identity currently reflects the insecurities and fears of a complex society in chaos and political and social transition.
U.S. intervention, already once disastrous, can only delay the day when Iraqis must deal with each other again. We cannot fix it. Television images of ISIS aside, the problem belongs to the region more than it does to us.
This counsel doesn't easily fit the part of a political speech or a talk-show segment where you are supposed to say, "Well, we have to do something." But it fits the history of the past dozen years, and long before, much better than most "do something" exhortations have, especially when the somethings involve troops, bombs, and drones.
3) Lawrence Wright. You know him as author of The Looming Tower and other articles; I know him as a friend from Texas Monthly and afterwards; we all look to him for insight on the region. His new New Yorker entry is short on to-do items but vividly describes Iraq's current agonies. Sample:
The Islamist storm passing through Iraq right now has been building up since the United States invaded the country in 2003, which unleashed longstanding sectarian rivalries that spilled over into civil war....
At the time of the American invasion, Al Qaeda was essentially defeated, scattered, and discredited all over the Muslim world. Iraq had nothing to do with Al Qaeda then....
Al Qaeda was originally envisioned as a kind of Sunni foreign legion, which would defend Muslim lands from Western occupation. What bin Laden invoked as an inciting incident for his war on the West was the First Iraq War, in 1990, when half a million American and coalition troops were garrisoned in Saudi Arabia in their successful campaign to repel the forces of Saddam Hussein, who had invaded Kuwait.
Bin Laden had asked Zarqawi to merge his forces with Al Qaeda, in 2000, but Zarqawi had a different goal in mind. He hoped to provoke an Islamic civil war, and, for his purposes, there was no better venue than the fractured state of Iraq, which sits astride the Sunni-Shiite fault line.
4) Eric Shinseki, again. This is slightly off-topic, but worth mentioning. In 2002, then-General Shinseki was in the news for cautioning that occupying Iraq would be a very hard, prolonged, and troop-intensive process. His then-superior within the Pentagon's civilian chain of command, Paul Wolfowitz, memorably sneered away Shinseki's warnings at a congressional hearing.
Now Shinseki is of course known mainly for his VA travails. This essay in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientistsputs his recent resignation as head of the VA in perspective. Sample:
There is a rich anthropological literature on scapegoats. Scapegoats are people (or sometimes animals) who are held responsible for calamities they did not cause, and are sacrificed.... In the words of the great anthropological philosopher Rene Girard, “The real source of victim substitutions is the appetite for violence that awakens in people when anger seizes them and when the true object of their anger is untouchable.”
Eric Shinseki is a modern American scapegoat.... Like Pentagon generals persuaded by body count numbers inflated by their subordinates that they were winning in Vietnam, Shinseki believed the numbers coming to him from his bureaucracy and thought his agency was improving its care for the veterans in his charge.
When the scandal broke, many in Congress called Shinseki out for weak leadership or criticized a systemic lack of integrity among VA bureaucrats. But VA administrators were just doing what those at the bottom of a bureaucracy always do when confronted with unfair metrics of accountability: Unable to change the system, they fake the numbers.... Just as junior officers inflated body counts in Vietnam so they wouldn’t be punished, so low-level VA officials responded to impossible demands for efficiency with fantasy book-keeping.
If Congress wanted to find the true causes of the scandal, it had only to look in the mirror. Congress put the VA in an impossible situation by not providing the resources the agency needed to handle the massive influx of veterans wounded in the wars Congress had voted to authorize.
To wrap up this look on the bright side, I'll say (seriously) that it is admirable of Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, George Tenet, Tommy Franks, Colin Powell, Dick Cheney,* and of course George W. Bush to have stayed off the "here's what to do about Iraq" circuit this past week.
* I should have known that Cheney's self-restraint could not last. He and his daughter share their wisdom in the WSJ. This will be worth a follow-up post.
If you're anything like me, when you hear the words "wise insights about the Iraq war," two names that immediately come to mind are Paul Wolfowitz and Scooter Libby.
Fortunately the Hertog Institute has engaged them both to teach a course, "The War in Iraq: A Study in Decision-Making."
I will confess that when someone told me about this today, I assumed it was an Onion-style joke. As in, "The Work-Family Balance: Getting It Right," co-taught by John Edwards and Eliot Spitzer. But it turns out to be real. Or "real."
In the cause of public knowledge, I am happy to offer royalty-free use of several items for the reading list. Like:
"The Fifty-First State?" from the year before the war. The Wolfowitz-Libby "study in decision-making" might consider why on Earth so many obvious implications of the war were blithely dismissed ahead of time, including by these two men. Or ...
"Blind into Baghdad," about the grotesque combination of arrogance, ignorance, and incompetence that characterized decision-making about the war. Or ...
"Bush's Lost Year," about the sequence of advantages squandered, opportunities missed, and crucial wrong bets made in the months just after the 9/11 attacks. Students might find this one particularly interesting, since it begins with a long interview with their own Professor Wolfowitz. For the Cliff's Notes version, see after the jump.
Somehow I am guessing that the professors might pass up my generous offer. So instead, here's another "at first I thought this was a joke" candidate: a new essay by William Kristol and Frederick Kagan in Kristol's Weekly Standard with advice about Iraq:
I'll give Kristol and the Kagan brothers this: They are consistent, in attitude as well as typography and headline writing and page layout. Here is what Kristol and Robert Kagan were writing 12 years ago, shortly after the 9/11 attacks:
Sample of their level-headed and confirmed-by-history views: "The Iraq threat is enormous. It gets bigger with every day that passes."
Am I sounding a little testy here? You bet. We all make mistakes. But we are talking about people in public life—writers, politicians, academics—who got the biggest strategic call in many decades completely wrong. Wrong as a matter of analysis, wrong as a matter of planning, wrong as a matter of execution, wrong in conceiving American interests in the broadest sense. None of these people did that intentionally, and many of them have honestly reflected and learned. But we now live with (and many, many people have died because of) the consequences of their gross misjudgments a dozen years ago. In the circumstances, they might have the decency to shut the hell up on this particular topic for a while. They helped create the disaster Iraqis and others are now dealing with. They have earned the right not to be listened to.
* * *
Brian Beutler in The New Republic goes into this standing-to-speak issue very clear-headedly. For the record, he takes my side of the argument, sort of. Also, last week in New York magazine Frank Rich talked about the strange non-accountability of the liberal-hawk faction. His colleague Eric Benson interviewed me on that theme. For Kristol as a special case of someone so wrong so often that he's a reliable reverse-predictor guide to reality, see this, which doesn't go into his enthusiasm even now for Sarah Palin.
And if you would like to see something not testy but deservedly bitter, consider what Andrew Bacevich says most recently about unrepentant war mongers.
Update: I hadn't seen until now that Paul "Let's Disband the Iraqi Army, What Could Go Wrong?" Bremer has offered his wisdom about Iraq in the WSJ. Jeesh! Also see this by Steve Benen at the Maddow blog, and this by Katrina Vanden Heuvel in the WaPo.
Richard Rockefeller examining a child in Niger. (Doctors Without Borders)
My wife Deb and I were shocked and heartbroken to learn that our friend Richard Rockefeller had died this morning in an airplane crash. He is in the news because he is a Rockefeller, and because of the tragically dramatic way in which he died. He should be remembered for the kind of person he was and the example he set.
We met Richard decades ago in college, I because I'd learned about his photography via mutual friends on the student paper, Deb because at the same time she and I were getting to know each other Richard was dating (and later married) one of her dorm mates and best friends. Then and now there is no avoiding the pluses and minuses of the name Rockefeller, obviously mostly plus. Richard coped then in a minor way by having his photo credits list his middle name rather than his last name, to avoid possible distraction. In a much deeper and lifelong way he exemplified how we would like to think that people of privilege would use their advantages.
He was personally unassuming, modest, and gracious; professionally accomplished and respected, as a local doctor in Maine and later a health-care strategist and analyst; and intellectually inventive and omni-curious. When we visited him at his house in Maine, he would explain the fisheries and coastal geography and patterns of arrowheads we might find. When he visited us in Washington and elsewhere he would talk increasingly about his work around the world with Doctors Without Borders and at home with victims of PTSD, and the difference that small investments in public health or preventive care could make. I don't know his cousin, longtime West Virginia Senator Jay Rockefeller, as well as I knew Richard. But I will say that Jay Rockefeller's reputation as someone who works steadfastly without claiming the limelight is the better known public-affairs counterpart of the life we saw Richard Rockefeller live.
People often speculate about what they would do "if they could do anything." Richard could have done anything, or nothing—such were his resources and options—and what he chose to do was be of service, to his friends and family and community and eventually his country and the world.
A topic I loved discussing with Richard was aviation. He took up flying very young, he advised me when I was first doing my training, and he took Deb and me with him in his plane for a tour of the coast of Maine. He also recommended to me a very valuable book called The Killing Zone, about the highly perilous first 200+ hours of most pilots' flying experience, before a tragic imagination evolves of how many things can go wrong and the consequences of rashness or miscalculation. Richard was highly experienced with airplanes, conscientious about his recurrent training, and cautious in his approach to an activity that he also loved.
What exactly happened this morning, when the weather near the White Plains airport was very bad but evidently not more than Richard thought he could deal with (and likely had before), is for sorting-out later on. For now I offer sincerest sympathies to his family and friends, and hopes that the reputation of Richard G. Rockefeller, MD, lives on not for the advantages he began with but for the use he made of them.
Later this afternoon my wife Deb and I will be talking with, and to, a group of executives and employees of the Cirrus Aircraft company in Duluth, Minnesota. The Cirrus line of small planes—which now includes the original SR-20, the more powerful SR-22, and the still-in-development new jet, test models which we've seen flying around town—are the ones whose development I followed in the late 1990s and described in Free Flight. Cirrus's transition to ownership by CAIGA, a Chinese state-owned enterprise, was also one of the plot lines in China Airborne.
It will be an interesting day to re-visit Cirrus, because of the latest instance of a Cirrus airplane being in the news. When the Cirrus line made its debut some 15 years ago, its most remarked-upon feature was its unprecedented built-in parachute for the entire airplane that came as standard equipment. This was at the insistence of the founders of the company, Alan Klapmeier and his brother Dale. As I describe in Free Flight, Alan had been involved in a mid-air collision when he was a very young pilot and was lucky to survive. He vowed that when (not if) he and his brother started their own airplane company, he would build in "what if?" protection for emergencies like this. For more about why Cirrus and its parachute were so controversial in the aviation world, and yet why it has enjoyed such runaway popularity among purchasers (making Cirrus the best-selling plane in its category worldwide), please see this account after a parachute "save" in Australia last month, and this after a parachute save in Connecticut last year. (For more on Alan Klapmeier's latest aviation-innovation project, a new plane called the Kestrel, watch this site.)
Yesterday there was another dramatic save, near the very busy suburban airport Hanscom Field in the western suburbs of Boston. As you can see in a TV news report here (not embeddable) the plane for some reason had an engine failure; the woman who was serving as flight instructor calmly reported the situation to the tower, directed the plane during its powerless glide away from the very crowded Burlington shopping mall area and toward a marsh, then pulled the parachute handle, and landed safely with the male flight student. The news station video shows flight instructor and passenger both walking out from the plane.
The LiveATC capture of the air traffic control frequency conveys the drama of the event—and also the impressive calm of all involved. These include the flight instructor, starting with her first report that she is unable to make it back to the airport; the controller, who is juggling that plane's needs with the other normal flow of traffic into Hanscom field; and another pilot who is (it appears) from the same flight club and who immediately flies over to check the disabled plane's condition from above.
That LiveATC recording is also not embeddable, but I promise that if you start listening to the clip (again, it's here) you will find it a dramatic mini-saga. The tone in everyone's voices 5 minutes in, when the other pilot sees what has become of the plane, is remarkable, as you will hear.
This is my only moment for the next few hours, so I will stop now and get this posted rather than prowling around for more photos of the episode or follow-up explanations. They can come later, after I've talked with the Cirrus officials. Signing off now, but please check out the news story and the ATC clip.
There are updates from Mississippi and Minnesota in the queue, but for now let me mention the wonderful news that is foremost in our minds. Please welcome Tide Fallows, who made her debut on Sunday morning, June 8, a week or two ahead of schedule, in San Francisco. Here she is not long after her arrival, resting and holding onto her father's hand.
Back on March 15, 1977, Jody Powell, who was then the White House press secretary, began his daily list of announcements with news of the first child born to the Carter Administration's then-young staff. This was Thomas Mackenzie Fallows, our first son, who had arrived very early that morning at George Washington University hospital in D.C.
These years later, Tom's mature finger is the one you see in the picture above, in the grip of his newborn daughter and first child, Tide Mackenzie Fallows. The parents, Tom and Lizzy Bennett Fallows, love and live around the water; as it happens, Tide was born on World Oceans Day.
She is a beautiful baby, and our second grandchild. Her cousin, nearly three-year-old Jack Fallows, lives at the other end of California, in Corona del Mar. Mother, father, and baby daughter in the San Francisco family are all doing very well—as are mother, father, and son in Southern California too. Loving congratulations to the new parents, and a joyous welcome to young miss Tide—who as the first girl in our lineage in a while will have a lot to teach us all.
A mid-inning conference by the visiting Eau Claire Express.
This evening the political news is out of Virginia, and there is upcoming news in this space from Mississippi and from San Francisco, both of them tomorrow.
But for now, this is how things looked this evening at Wade Stadium in Duluth, Minnesota—an atmospheric WPA-era not-quite-minor-league baseball field that is home to the Duluth Huskies of the Northwoods League. This is a league for promising players who are still active on college rosters, and thus not eligible for pro contracts of any sort. They get expenses and—according to the lifelong Duluth families we sat among in the stadium—most of the players, who come from around the country, spend the summer boarding with volunteer host families in town. Some of the players join their Northwoods teams late because they've been busy in the College World Series and other postseason play.
The home-team Huskies looked strong this evening. They were up 6-1 at the end of the 4th, and came back for 9-7 at the end of the 5th. I asked the native-Duluther sitting next to me, a veteran of the mining industry, whether Northwoods games were generally high-scoring like this, Little League style. He said, No: the Huskies usually didn't get so many runs. But then the visiting Eau Claire Express scored a depressing 2 runs in the top of the ninth, and seven in the top of the 11th—and this is how things stand as I write.
This is a placeholder note about America, and also an announcement about an additional theme in our travels-around-America reports. Last month I had the honor of delivering the 14th annual Casey Shearer Memorial Lecture, at Brown University. Casey Shearer was a talented student journalist and writer in the Brown class of 2000 who, tragically and unexpectedly, died of a heart virus while playing basketball with friends just before he was to graduate. Casey Shearer's influential and popular writings in Brown student media were often about sports and their ramifications; the sports-and-society beat is one he presumably would have pursued as a writer. In his honor, his parents (and our friends) Ruth Goldway and Derek Shearer set up a memorial lecture about some aspect of the journalistic world in which he presumably would have worked.
As part of this year's Shearer Memorial Lecture, I received, with my wife, a modest honorarium of $1500. We said that in gratitude for this award and in respect for the kind of writing that Casey Shearer might have done we would use the money in the months ahead to pay expenses for reports exploring the role sports plays in the cities we are visiting. I am not making any larger point about the role of the Huskies for the moment, but I am saying that we have applied the $9 cost of our Wade Stadium tickets this evening to this account. (This was half price on "Two-fer Tuesday"). The $18 for beers and brats we are happy to cover ourselves.
Update: the Huskies are coming back with 3 so far in the bottom of the 11th, so it is 16-12 as I write. But my hopes are modest. We actually left the stadium, and have been following online, after the Huskies rallied and seemed back in control by the bottom of the 6th. The truth is, we were freezing. (When flying over Lake Superior yesterday, we didn't see any icebergs, but most people have mentioned that they were present as recently as Memorial Day.)
We're not going to be here for Friday night's game, but in case you are, there's a special attraction: a group of local women are going to dig their way around the infield with spoons, in search of a hidden diamond. American sports at its finest.
And it looks as if it tonight's game might end at 16-12. Pitchers' battle! And there is always tomorrow night, when the Huskies take on the Express again.
The Air Force's training base in Columbus has stayed open through waves of base-closing, thanks to the influence of Mississippi politicians.
Nearly a year ago, when my wife Deb and I were kicking off our American Futures project, we said that one of the ambitions was to apply a "normal" reporting lens to parts of the country that don't usually get it.
The range of experience in New York or San Francisco—or in D.C. or Boston or L.A. or Chicago or sometimes Seattle or Miami or a few other places—is a staple part of American news and pop-culture coverage. But when somewhere in South Dakota, or Alabama, or Inland-Empire California, or Kentucky is in the news, it's usually because of:
a disaster, natural or man-made: tornado, shooting, explosion, flood, drought, hate crime, sinkhole;
a sporting event (NASCAR, Little League World Series) occasionally or a political event regularly: any place in Iowa or New Hampshire every four years in primary season, then Ohio and Florida in the general election campaigns;
a "concept" piece—"meth in the heartland," "the new economy of prisons" "climate change hits the farm"—that involves picking out some Middle American location and using it as the narrative setting for your thesis.
Reinvention and resilience across the nation Read more
You've seen something like that going on in Mississippi these past few days, with more to come in the two weeks ahead. The Senate primary is the latest front in the struggle for the future of the GOP. Thus we have reports from Tupelo and Hattiesburg, op-ed pieces on the paradox/ hypocrisy of America's most "conservative" states being the ones most reliant on federal subsidies, and so on. And, given Mississippi's past, plus eloquent reminders of the omnipresence of that past from the state's most celebrated writer, there's an all-but-irresistible freak-show undertone to a lot of reports from Mississippi. These Southerners! Can you believe them?
I mention this as set-up to the very interesting note below, from a lawyer in the Jackson, Mississippi, area. [See update below for his identity.] Here's a policy exception I'm making for this note: When quoting reader mail, I always cut out any specifically complimentary part. If someone says, "Great article, but I wonder about your point that ..." I will quote it as beginning, "I wonder about your point that ..." No doubt it's the WASP in me, but I figure that quoting compliments can't come across well. I'm leaving in the complimentary parts of the note that follows, both because they're integral to the reader's point and because, frankly, it's so heartening for my wife Deb and me to hear that what we've been trying to do has come across in the way we intended, at least in this case.
Now, to our reader in Mississippi:
Yesterday, a stray tweet from a friend announced you had been doing some writing about my home state so I hurried over to check things out. I haven’t had time to read everything, but I want to thank you and your lovely “research assistant” for engaging with some of what is good in our state.
You may be aware the chef Anthony Bourdain, of whom I’m a fan, recorded an episode of his CNN show on the “Mississippi Delta” with stops in Jackson and Oxford too. I was appalled by it.
He was escorted around by the food writer John T. Edge (a Georgia native) and spent an inordinate amount of time in Oxford (where I was previously a resident for eleven years) with the expat writer community and fellow chef John Currence (a New Orleanian).
The most unbearable moment came when Geno Lee, the proprietor of the Big Apple Inn, a historic black-owned business in Jackson famous for their pig-ear sandwiches, announced to the camera, “I didn’t know I had such a cool place until he (John T. Edge) told me so.”
I cringed at the N.Y. Times-published taste maker “blessing” the heretofore clueless owner of a historic business. Edge spoke for Lee, the writers spoke for Oxford, Chef Currence spoke for himself and any truth about Mississippi was lost in the process. What was absent from Bourdain’s show, and what is not absent from your series of dispatches, are the voices of Mississippians speaking for themselves.
I find a lot of reporting, storytelling, and documenting of the South in general and Mississippi in particular to be diagnostic and mostly hostile or contemptuous. (There’s no victim complex here, I assure you, you would be hard pressed to find anyone who give you a more honest accounting of our historical cultural and political depravity which has given way to the current cultural and political malaise and decay.) The hostility is born of our state’s vicious history and pretty understandable; however, I think the tendency to diagnose comes from a certain impenetrability of our society or culture.
There is a complexity of feeling and attitude that history has imprinted on most Mississippians through the generations. This is a place that the American dream went and continues to go unlived by most, not only because of our racial history, but because of isolation, poverty and backwardness that transcends any questions of black and white and effect huge numbers of endemically poor of both races. The collective emotional damage of that history remains unresolved just as the social and economic damage does in way that is more pronounced than Alabama, Louisiana, Arkansas, or South Carolina.
What I appreciate about your series is that, and maybe you are simply performing that now rare function called journalism, in the face of that impenetrability you broadcast the voices of Mississippians working on the ground in hopes of turning the tide of history in their communities or for themselves. You may find this odd, but Higgins’s quote [in this post] about Eurocopter “changing the psyche” nearly brought me to tears. Despite the small upward or downward spikes in wealth and affluence for the small elite and middle classes (of which I am, thankfully, one), it is that image of sharecropper, white or black, Higgins invokes about which we all shudder. The shame of poverty, lack of education, civic and political failure is shame for those who experience it directly as well as the elites who have allowed it to persist uninterrupted since Reconstruction.
You hear the echoes of Higgins’ “barefoot and pregnant … snuff in their lip” in Kimberly Sanford’s essay when she describes her sister, mother and mother’s third husband—the miscarriage, the dirty table, the work boots and worn jeans. [For about Ms. Sanford, see below.] For Kimberly, it appears the discovery of feminist criticism is changing her psyche in a way similar to that in which Eurocopter helped Higgins dream big for the GT.
These stories of discovery are the ones that get lost among the usual yarns told to tourists in Mississippi whether it be the terror of the Civil Rights Movement, the fantasy of Antebellum culture and the old Lost Cause, the friendly debauchery of the Delta planters or the very real charms for Oxford. But like everywhere else, it’s self-discovery and self-actualization that are in short supply, not images of cotton, bluesmen, bourbon, much less hooded klansman and hoop skirts.
I hope comparing your work to Bourdain’s doesn’t offend you. I only do so because both are recent depictions of life here, even if yours is journalism and his is entertainment.
I love my home state as much as an American can love the political subdivision in which he was born and raised. I do not, however, think Mississippi is a “great place.” It is not. In the present day it is a strange, tribalistic, confused and impoverished. However, I do believe Mississippi has great potential to be a better place. Thank you for sharing with your readers what many of us believe are the green shoots of some kind of economic transformation here. But more so, thank you for letting Joe Max Higgins and Kimberly Sanford speak about discovering ways forward from this dark, green, lonely place.
Sincere thanks back to the reader for this powerful and thoughtful note. Deb and I do feel as if over the past year we have learned as much about the variety of our country as we learned about China in any of our years of traveling and living there.
Update: At his request, I'll identify the author of this message. His name is Zachary Bonner, of Ridgeland, Mississippi. He says that he would be happy to hear from like-minded people in the region or beyond. You will easily find his contact info online.
Before I send you to the rest of the reader's thoughts, let me mention Deb's latest report from Mississippi, which is about some of the science projects developed by students at MSMS, the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science, in Columbus. Again its point is to let students and teachers there describe in their own words—literally, in short videos—what they are trying to do. And if you read the powerful collection of MSMS student essays that Deb previously presented here, you might be interested in this update on what is becoming of the five students she mentioned, starting with one the lawyer-reader mentioned:
• Kimberly Sanford, "As I grasp the battered storm door of my unleveled mobile home ..." is going to Harvard.
• Rachel Jones, "The wind of my parents’ perennial unemployment has blown away my umbrella ..." is going to Vassar.
• Brendan Ryan, "my favorite things about living at a residential high school four hours from my hometown is the car rides home ..." is going to Wenzao Ursuline University in Taiwan.
• Sabrina Moore, "MSMS is often referred to as the most diverse square mile in the state of Mississippi ..." is going to Mississippi State.
• Joseph Messer, "I think that home is also wherever I make it ..." is going to Deep Springs College in California.
Two weeks ago I mentioned five good books that all happened to be by people I knew and that I thought very much deserved attention. As a reminder, three were about China: Louisa Lim's The People's Republic of Amnesia, about the organized forced-forgetting of the Tiananmen Square repression 25 years ago this week; Evan Osnos's Age of Ambition, about the very human (and often humorous) face of China's simultaneous opening-up and closing-down, its idealism and its crassness; and Howard French's China's Second Continent, about the extension of the Chinese model and Chinese vision into Africa. Plus Ken Adelman's Reagan at Reykjavik, which is a vivid backstage view of the meeting that in many ways was the beginning of the end of the Cold War; and Ralph Nader's Unstoppable, on which I am about to say more.
Now, three more good books—actually, two new mentions, plus an augmented description of the Nader book from the earlier list. As was the case previously, these are all by people I know but are books I'd recommend anyway. As a bonus in today's installment, I'm including recent reviews or article that highlight some of these books' strengths.
The Director, by David Ignatius. Newspaper readers know David Ignatius for his columns and reporting from around the world. Book readers know him for a series of elegant spy novels over the past two decades, starting with the wonderful Agents of Innocence and continuing now with The Director. I've known David through both kinds of readings, and as a good friend since our teenage years.
David Ignatius's novels have always been a clef in the best sense: closely connected to, and very revealing and insightful about, the trends and tensions in the news. His previous Bloodmoney, for instance, remains one of the best guides to the moral complexities of drone-era warfare and the future problems America is now thoughtlessly creating for itself. Before that, The Incrementwas about Iran's nuclear ambitions, as seen on the Iranian side as well as in the U.S. His latest book, The Director, is not explicitly about Edward Snowden or the NSA, but it is all about the technological, commercial, governmental, and journalistic world in which that news is unfolding. As well as being the usual page-turning read. On NPR Alan Cheuse had his very positive review here. (Cheuse also covers a spy book based in modern China, Adam Brookes's The Night Heron, which I've bought but not yet read.)
Mad Music: Charles Ives, the Nostalgic Rebel, by Stephen Budiansky. Budiansky, a friend from our time working together at US News, is the closest thing modern nonfiction writing has to a genuine polymath. He was originally trained in chemistry and applied mathematics. His early journalistic work was about science-and-technology policy and national defense. At practically a book-per-year rate over the past 15 years he has produced a series of erudite and entertaining works on topics that range from the psychology of horses (and dogs, and cats), to the science and history of code breaking, to the history and sociology of post-Civil War terrorism in the South, to the evolution of civilian and military air power. He does all this from a small, working farm in Virginia—where, for the record, he and his family were for a while custodians of our late beloved Mike the Cat and his littermate WhiteCap.
Budiansky is also an accomplished musician. His latest book Mad Music, on the eccentric composer Charles Ives, is as effortlessly informed and enlightening as his other works. Here I refer you to two recent positive reviews, one by Jeremy Denk in the NYRB and one by Sudip Bose in the WaPo.
Unstoppable, by Ralph Nader. In my earlier item I mentioned that Nader's latest book was informal, jokey, and positive-spirited in a way that might come as a surprise for many readers. Timothy Noah's recent enthusiastic-but-realistic review in the WaPo is an occasion for stressing one further point about Nader's case.
Since his famous and consequential run for president in 2000 (which, for the record, I opposed), Nader has obviously been identified with an attempt to move beyond our two established parties. Usually we think of a beyond-party movement in a wholly negative sense: These established groups are both so corrupt, there's not a dime's worth of difference between them, and so on. That tone was obviously a notable part of Nader's early runs.
But as Noah's review indicates, the whole premise of Unstoppable is Nader's emphasis on the positive similarities between the parties, and the associated "conservative" and "progressive" sensibilities. He says that there is a lot to like about the small-c conservative nature of American neighborhood life. And there is a lot (he says) that those conservatives should ally with in the "everyone deserves a fair shake" impulse of many "liberal" policies. It's an approach with obvious appeal but with surprisingly few other advocates on the national scene right now. It's worth reading the book if only to see the way he applies this "convergence" sensibility to a range of economic and social issues.
C.S.A. monument, West Point, Mississippi, May 2014.
None of us planned it this way, but my wife Deb and I happened to be reporting from Mississippi at just the time when when Ta-Nehisi Coates's "Case for Reparations" article, which starts with scenes from Mississippi, was coming to such deserved attention.
Reinvention and resilience across the nation Read more
What Deb and I have been discussing is loosely parallel to, rather than directly engaged with, the issues of legally enforced racial injustice that are central to Ta-Nehisi's story and its follow-ups. We have been looking at the ways a part of the country with this heritage—on average quite poor, historically under-industrialized, with about three times as great an African-American population share as the country as a whole (about 38 percent in Mississippi, vs. about 13 percent for the United States) and with a history of racially based mistreatment of its black population—moves ahead now, as every part of the country aspires to do. We've had Ta-Nehisi's articles in mind as we've been writing, and I think the accounts of Mississippi then and Mississippi now can usefully be read together.
As a reminder, here's a "swipe map" by John Tierney, matching proportions of black population across the country with median household income. (Click "Hide Intro" to see more of the map. You can zoom in and out and pan to different parts of the country. Also you can follow a link to a more fully featured, but non-embeddable, version of the map.)
For background, reports mainly from Deb on extraordinary efforts in innovative Mississippi schools are here: one, two, three, and four. And mine on the surge of heavy industry in the "Golden Triangle" of east-central Mississippi are here: one, two, three, four, and five.
In the latest installment, I quoted a reader from the North arguing that on balance it would have been better for America if Mississippi stayed poor. The reasoning was that industries coming into lower-wage, emphatically non-labor-union Southern states were part of a "race to the bottom" that has immiserated the middle- and working-class everywhere. That reader and others faulted me for not laying out my own views on the race-to-the-bottom question as regards Mississippi, whether or not I'd done so in previous books or in reports from China (which is of course as the center of "race to the bottom" patterns worldwide).
I'll do that, but as part three of today's three-part plan. Part 1 is factual clarification from Joe Max Higgins of Columbus, Mississippi, who has been at the center of some recent reports. Part 2 is a selection of messages from readers on the "race to the bottom" / "let those Southerners stay poor" theme. And part 3, after the jump, is my summary view.
Part 1: Joe Max Higgins and the new industrial wage. Earlier I mentioned that Joe Max Higgins, of the business-promoting "Golden Triangle LINK" organization in Columbus, Mississippi, had one big guideline for the industries he hoped to attract. Namely, that they pay a lot more than people in the area already earned.
As a benchmark: the median household income in the United States is just over $50,000 per year. In many parts of Mississippi, it's barely half as much. Then when the enormous, high-tech Severstal steel mill opened up outside Columbus, employing hundreds of people at an average pay (before benefits) of $80,000, Higgins said that he regarded this as a huge win for his area. A reminder of what it's like inside the mill, from a company video that exactly resembles what I saw:
Many people wrote back to say: Eighty thousand dollars, on average? No way. You've been conned! So I went back to Higgins. He showed me evidence of a formal agreement between the mill and the State of Mississippi that the average pre-benefit pay must be at least $70,000. And at the latest audit, it was just under $80,000.
I'm not getting into the possible differences between median and average earnings there, or what the workers give up or gain by being in a non-union plant. I'm saying that there's a reason the mill had so many thousands of applicants when it opened up, which is that its jobs are such a step up for local workers. (And, before you ask, there is still an installment coming on how local people are being trained for these jobs.)
Part 2: Let's hear from the readers. There has been a very large volume of mail, from which I am trying to take representative samples. Here goes.
• Think of the TVA as reparations. A previous reader objected to the TVA even trying to speed development in Mississippi: "To be honest my chief reaction was to wish that TVA funding was quickly and permanently yanked. I do not support federal funds in order to develop this political cesspool into an influential center of the American economy." Another reader, originally from Wisconsin, responds:
I moved to the mid South about 12 years ago, and very few days go by when I don't find it alienating still. However, your piece on the Black Belt in Mississippi caught me up.
To reference TNC's recent Atlantic article, a TVA designation of "Megasite" plus Federal/State/Local tax incentives could be argued as the sort of economic policies that target the development of poor communities, and if focused on areas historically affected by racist intent/policies (e.g., chattel slavery in the Black Belt of the South followed by sharecropping, lynching, disenfranchisement, Jim Crow, etc., etc., etc.), a sort of reparation. (Did that sentence contain enough hedges?!)
Although I too decry the political shift I feel in the nation as a whole which I think is in large part driven by the weird Republican values emanating from the South, I believe policies of infrastructural development such as the TVA "Megasite" are essential for moving forward. My electricity comes from TVA and in general I do not herald their track record (e.g., Kingston Fossil Plant in Harriman TN). However, I was heartened to read about the "Megasite" policy. TVA is not perfect but as a hybrid Federal/State/Private entity, maybe it can be steered toward more progressive ends (could not for the life of me find a better word than progressive there...)
An aside: a pox on those in my home state [Wisconsin] who have lost the true "conservative" Republican values of my father's family who fought for the Union.
• Also about the TVA. A reader, who discloses that his firm does business with the TVA, adds this note:
A minor nitpick with your reader who dislikes the TVA megasites due to it being federal funds helping a region of the country she dislikes politically.
The TVA does not receive federal funding, it is a self funded agency, funded through ratepayers and bonds.
• "They may be charming, but their policies are killing us." In support of the original "let Mississippi stay poor" message:
Add me in as another regular reader who has a hard time much caring about economic gains in white Mississippi. [JF note: the regions I've been writing about have been majority black, and the factory work forces are integrated.]
As a young person, I was too much of a snob to work at learning this history of my own country -- much snazzier to concentrate on Europe and Africa -- so I'm doing some catching up as a semi-retired adult. One of the insights I've gotten through working my way through the Oxford History of the United States is that the shape of modern US society was set by the absence of representatives of the Confederate States from Congress in 1860-65. I don't just mean emancipation, though that's the root. I mean the Homestead Act, the Land-Grant colleges, "internal improvements", a modern-ish federal government and direct taxation system. With the Southern obstructionists around, we could not have had any of that.
And the southern states, insofar as they are controlled by whites (almost entirely) don't seem to have changed much: they exist to impede all forms of necessary national public policy: access to health care for all, education, reasonable gun control, etc. In this era, climate crisis is the moral equivalent of the emancipation struggle and these states, along with some western types who imagine themselves solitary cowboys, would rather all our descendants suffer than sacrifice their phony extractive culture.
The only reason I can imagine attending to the economic struggles of the South is that the majority of this country's Black citizens live there. It would be an additional white crime to abandon them to the unhindered depredations of their white neighbors.
What to do I don't know, but you lose me when you are celebrating industrial development using non-union labor that props up a state whose representatives throw themselves against everything that makes this country and the world work. I'm sure they are charming, but their politics are killing us.
• "Do these people think we can't read?" A note on anti-Southern attitudes:
These comments show explicitly an attitude that has been pretty common from the beginning of the civil rights era- hatred and contempt by progressives for those they consider not sufficiently with the program, most obviously southerners but also non-elite, non-progressives whites outside of the south.
Do these people think we can't read? Or are too stupid to understand what their real feelings, intents and motivations are?
• "The real question is, what's the worst we will put up with?" Mike Levsen, the mayor of Aberdeen, South Dakota (whose city we have coincidentally planned to visit), writes:
We will always try to steal other cities’ assets when the opportunity is offered (and have done it); it is expected of us as city officials. So, I don’t question the Mississippi people, even if it correspondingly causes distress elsewhere. Interestingly, nobody ever suggests we are destroying the work ethic of those companies by giving financial help, the way it is assumed by many that social welfare breeds laziness.
To me, a more essential question demanding answer is “What will we put up with”, not where.
There will always be people occupying the bottom one-fifth or one-tenth.
We spend much time discussing who, what, where, why…but I don’t care about those questions.
Whether by race, geography, legacy, age, or any other demographic indicator.
Whether or not they are responsible for their own situation or undeserving in any way.
Whether they are able to exit from that status or not
They are among us.
Those exiting will be replaced by others who will be a part of our life, our country, our future, and occupy that bottom cohort.
The question is, what is the worst state of life for that bottom rung that we will put up with. How bad does the housing, nutrition, healthcare, educational opportunities, family services, environmental protection legal system access, and all the other things that are degraded by a lack of money have to be before we say it can’t continue. …what’s the worst the rest of the country will put up with...
It’s not important where they are, what’s necessary to acknowledge is that they exist in that situation, and everyone else is also the worse for it.
• "Strategically brilliant but morally bankrupt." From a reader in a big East Coast city:
As a Citizen of this great country, someone who has more than a passing acquaintance with American history in regard to industrialization and things north/south and also someone who builds all over the United States and Canada, I continue to wish that we could somehow meet in the middle on the work issue, because there truly are two legitimate sides to this story.
The actions of various Southern state governments and their business partners actions have been strategically brilliant but morally bankrupt. To wit, South Carolina. They receive $1.92 in Federal funding for every dollar paid, gleefully using the differential as a subsidy for their low wages, low property taxes and poor services, all while issuing a steady stream of anti-Federal, pro-State rhetoric.
States like South Carolina are all about the business owner and only about the worker in the most basic sense that they see them as units of production, nothing more. From a development perspective the best monetary example of how South Carolina would act if they were allowed is by building the Burj Khalifa, which cost $1.5B for 5M sf, or $300 psf.
On the other side, we have the legacy airline and automobile manufacturing unions, who have continued to make their own collective beds through continuing to demand luxurious pensions, European-style working hours, confiscatory base wage, overtime and double time rules, and refusal to modernize their approach towards work and a continued erosion of quality of work that used to separate them from non-union workers. The best development example of how this still works in the US is the Freedom Tower, which cost $3.8B for 3.8M sf, or $1,000 psf, or 3.3 times the cost of the Burj Khalifa.
I’m equally frustrated with both sides. People in work for Boeing in South Carolina need to make more. People who work for Boeing in Washington need to make less. Benefits need to generally equalize on both side.
• And what if Lincoln had lived? To wind up this part for now:
As a native of the upper south (Kentucky) and a student of history generally, I consider myself “southern” in a general kind of way. I have two graduate level degrees, and am currently living in the Mid-West. My speech, however, is peppered with the southern and country idioms, and while in informal company, I am still apt to drop the g’s of words ending in “-ing.”
My political beliefs are left and Democratic, despite the conservative nature of the Kentucky Democratic Party: I can point to real things in my family’s more humble beginnings that are the products of the hard work of my forebears, certainly, but which were made available TO my forebears during hard times by Democratic administrations. THAT is the Democratic Party in which I believe and for which I still vote unflinchingly...
Your post yesterday regarding the affirmative answer given by an urban resident of a Rust Belt city to your hypothetical question, “Should Mississippi remain poor?” prompted a reaction in me, as I’m sure it did (and will) with many others, perhaps none more so than residents of Mississippi. My own reaction, however, is more of an “Amen!” of sorts rather than a typical “circle the wagons” response from a fellow southerner.
I have taken enough history courses to know understand how the anti-union and union-busting policies of the South in general have led to a “national race to the bottom” as your correspondent pointed out, with Northern industries decamping to states where unionization is at best discouraged, but where the State actively pursues policies favorable to “business growth” – low taxes, right-to-work laws, lax environmental regulations, and so on. The move of the textile industries from New England to the lowlands of the Carolinas and Georgia after the Civil War is just such an example.
I am also aware that as much as the South has been guilty of economic depredations against its Northern kin, it has also been a victim. After the Civil War, the untapped natural resources of the South were snapped up at bargain prices by Northern interests, whether it be West Virginia’s and Kentucky’s coal, Georgia’s timber, Alabama’s iron, etc. These new industries were, of course, abetted by the aforementioned state policies that gave them, more or less, a free hand to do as they pleased, whether to the resources they controlled and processed, the workers they employed, or the land they despoiled.
As an American citizen (not one of Kentucky or ‘the South’ alone) with progressive political beliefs, I can understand your correspondent’s dark suggestion that perhaps, yes, Mississippi should be left poor. If increasing economic clout means “the Mississippi model” works, and therefore, her policies should be emulated elsewhere, then I might tend to agree with her. I’ve watched President Obama try to solve some of the nation’s toughest problems with both hands tied around his back by an intransigent opposition that has sometimes appeared willing to destroy the nation in its zeal to “save it” from Obama’s policies. Examples of this, and other, clearly race-based policies, such as those that have rolled back voting protections in the South, etc., have just left me disgusted.
I don’t know how you feel about “alternate history,” but I’ll go one better than the Rust Belt correspondent. I very often wonder how different (and presumably BETTER) the nation as a whole would have been had Lincoln lived, and, instead of his passive “prodigal son” reconciliation with the South, he had been inflamed with a real sense of remaking (with a "Radical" Republican Congress) the South for all times:
- the entire political and military leadership of each seceding state being seized and forcibly removed, either to the North or West, or otherwise given the opportunity to be banished abroad, but removed from the South at the least;
- the political and economic vacuum in the South filled with the growing ranks of the Northern urban poor and immigrants from abroad;
- massive agricultural and land reform;
- investments in infrastructure projects and education; and
- perhaps even a redrawing of jurisdictional boundaries, such as redrawing state boundaries, creating new states with new names, etc....
Such a thing as this “remaking of the South” is unimaginable in American society or history, and thankfully (for the South, perhaps, at least) we had a man with Lincoln’s temperament instead of, say, Stalin’s at that time and in that office. From the nation’s fraught history with race, and with that region’s desire to seemingly stymie nearly every effort to advance public policy that brings light to the darkness and knowledge to the unlearned, it would seem, sometimes, to be a price worth paying.
Sharecroppers in Georgia, just before World War II. Are their grandchildren better off, because industries have arrived? Hint: my answer is Yes. (
Farm Security Administration, 1941 )
Over the past few weeks, my wife Deb and I have been reporting on Mississippi's efforts to move itself up from the bottom in rankings of educational achievement, and similarly to move itself up from being overall the poorest state in the nation.
Question for the day, from readers: whether any success it achieves will necessarily come at the expense of other places, especially in the North. Of course movement in rankings is by definition zero-sum. The real question is whether greater prosperity for Mississippi has to mean less somewhere else.
For background, here are some installments about the Mississippi educational efforts: one, two, three, and four. (No matter what region you're from, be sure to read at least the first couple of essays by students in that final, fourth item.) And these on industrialization: one, two, three, and four.
Reinvention and resilience across the nation Read more
Now, a note representative of several I've received. It concerns how to think or talk about economic activities in the non-union, low-wage, politically conservative, ever-shadowed-by-racial-injustice (cf. Ta-Nehisi Coates) areas of the Deep South. Here goes, quoted in full for context:
I have an odd relationship with your blog. I read it avidly and yet I find myself alienated. You prick my despair about the country, in fact. In your most recent entry in the 'Lo and Behold, Industry in Mississippi' series, you asked for feedback and so here is a little exploration of my vexed relation to your work and perspectives.
First off, I'm a native of a Rust Belt city and much of my family originally migrated here from the South. In fact they were slaveowners who left the South to industrialize the North - and they were very successful at it, probably even a factor in the victory of the North over the South in the Civil War.
But I grew up in a different time - the time of decline of industry. I grew up with the decades of desolation and loss. I understand the impact of abandonment, wholesale and profound, that has infected the Rust Belt in the post war era. I know the economic decline of Rust Belt cities to be deeply imprinted with American racism as well as the relentless and devastatingly effective rightwing campaign against unionization. The deindustrialization of the North cannot be separated from the success of Southern style politics and ideologies over the last 40 years. The American people have suffered serious economic harm as a result.
So forgive me if Joe Max Higgins does not seem charming. To be honest my chief reaction to reading this piece was to wish that TVA funding was quickly and permanently yanked. I do not support federal funds in order to develop this political cesspool into an influential center of the American economy. I think the South should be quarantined, politically and economically. They suck on the federal tit whilst fanning resentment of the poor, among many (many!) other political sins. (The best thing about the Dixiecrats is that there were less effective nationally when stranded within the Democratic Party than they are today, when they control Republican ideology and the Supreme Court. )
I wasn't satisfied by your reply to this comment [from another reader, a man in New York]:
"The theme that I find missing in your series is any recognition that the Southern states have been in a continuing economic war with the Northern manufacturing base for at least since the Civil Rights Act. Undermining and destroying unions has been a signature part of that strategy and it has been very successful. The great cities of the North have been hollowed out just as they were beginning to provide a haven for lower class families, not to mention the overall starvation of the middle class."
You didn't address the above point. The South has had a baleful influence. Perhaps what is in process is the lasting destruction of American broad based prosperity, thanks in no small part to rise of Southern political values. There are no signs of a turnaround for most in this economy - it is only getting worse. Yet continuing on this path would be tragic. It would fundamentally undermine the whole American experiment. I would like your series a lot more if you addressed this.
I keep telling myself I won't do this any more, but I wrote right back to the woman who sent the message:
I have a reaction of "And therefore, what....?" to your views.
Suppose one, like me, is in favor of unions, is in favor of more progressive taxation and a fairer economy, is against what many Southern politicians now stand for, has written endlessly about the "new nullification" menace, and so on. Should I say: "Well, I hope these people in Mississippi stay poor?"
I'd be interested to know what, specifically, you'd like to do to, or with, Mississippi—or St Marys, Georgia, or Greenville, SC—as the action part of your view.
To which she replied:
As to your question - should the people in Mississippi stay poor? I would suggest taking a serious look at the answer 'yes'. If industrial jobs in Mississippi are in fact a part of a national race to the bottom and if that race is destructive to the larger good then the race itself should be stopped. And one consequence of that could be a slow down in the industrializing of Mississippi.
I don't enjoy making careless arguments and there are a number of 'ifs' in the above paragraph. The point is that there is a larger picture. What conventions, regulations, and laws enable corporations to make states compete against each other for their investment? Some of that should simply be outlawed. Some of that sort of thing is actually disallowed under trade pacts - why should it be allowed for states?
It's taken decades to build an economy of downward mobility. Financial deregulation, corporate trade deals, and union busting has required not only policies but ideology and economic theory. It has been a bipartisan effort and academics and the media have contributed. Virtually all of the conventional thinking in my view is tainted by this history. But the issues we are discussing impact the real economy of jobs and wages. We must not avoid painful disputes even though bringing up these difficult issues is a downer in the context of a feel good story of a poor corner of the country doing better.
If you've gotten this far, I hope you'll indulge a further word about the ongoing juggling act for a writer like me. Over the past three-plus decades, in at least four of my books and at least a dozen long Atlantic articles, I've tried my best to apply reporting, reading, thinking, and observation to questions of exactly this sort. The movements of industries among nations; the movements from region to region within a nation; the forces that make whole economies seem to progress or stagnate; the forces that are uniquely necessary if America is to seem "fair"; the burdens of history, race, public policy, and private institutions in shaping American mobility, and so on.
I know that I've written all this stuff. Most readers, probably including this one, don't. But if I say, "go read 'How the World Works' or More Like Us or 'How America Can Rise Again,'" I sound insufferable. And if I don't, I'm left with people who "are not satisfied" because I haven't dealt with a topic at a time when they happened to be noticing or in a post they're seeing on its own. As the world's problems go, it's small. But it is one I have to think about it.
Enough about me! Let's turn now to a reader in Florida. He writes:
I agree with you —I wouldn't lead every Mississippi piece I wrote with a racial disclaimer either. After all, TNC's writing has focused as much on Chicago as Mississippi—which makes sense because parts of Chicago are historically, literally Mississippi north.
That said, two things about two of these posts really struck me and both relate to the historical relationship of Missisippi and Chicago. Key quote from your post:
"Part of the 'Northern narrative' on what we're doing here is that we're just buying industries," [Joe Max Higgins] told me.
In 1914, with the onset of World War I, European immigration halted overnight. By 1915, booming, shorthanded northern industry was "buying" southern black farm labor and creating the Great Migration—and changing America, north and south, forever.
Southern government and industry (mostly agriculture) fought with every legal and extra legal tool it had to halt the migration. "The southern narrative was you will cripple our society by stealing our niggers." It was routine for southern local governments to ban labor recruiting; to ban migration itself through brutally enforced vagrancy laws. My hometown in Florida passed an ordinance in 1916 requiring a $1,000 license for any recruiter seeking black labor. Not getting the license was a crime.
You ask, don't people know these things?
No, they don't. They know about water fountains and epithets. They know nothing about the migration that made both redlining and the successful civil right movement possible by breaking up the status quo.
In my opinion, WWI and the Great Migration are the two most important forces of 20th century. One caused the other. They are, I think, without question the most important racial forces of the 20th century. And we as a country know nothing about them. We know so little about them that an economic developer in Mississippi doesn't see the exquisite historical irony in the South "buying" the industry that the north used to buy its labor and grow the industrial power of the US.
This is plenty to chew on for now. I was tempted to add a "This I Believe!" summary of my economic views, but I am going to save that for tomorrow. I have actually written it already, so I will actually post it after I let it cool.
I will though close with one transition point, tied to the first reader's note. I respect her clarity in following her logic to its conclusion. Still, I completely disagree that the rest of the country might have stayed richer and fairer if our poorest state stayed dirt poor. While I'm at it: I also don't think America would be richer, fairer, or happier if China were still dirt poor. That's a topic-sentence assertion for now. Supporting sentences soon.
Detail from illustration of 19th-century Grub Street, showing the natural condition of journalism. (
For as long as there have been readers, writers, and publishers, and even before people may have used those terms or the word "journalism," the business of providing information about the world has wrestled with two big, related questions. They are the questions that in 2014 go by the names "monetization" and "traffic."
The monetization question: How do people who gather information, assess and analyze it, present and illustrate it, and make it available to the public pay their bills? How do they rent and heat the offices where they work, buy the printing presses (old) or servers (new) they need to get their product out, pay for their own food and clothes and medical expenses? In general, how does an information system match its output—"news" in all senses—with revenue that lets it pay for necessary inputs of every sort.
The traffic question: How does a news organization set, re-set, and adjust every day the balance between sizzle and steak, between glitter and grist, between what's fun to know and what's important to know? News has to always be both and can't ever be just one. If it's just froth and eye-candy, it's not news but entertainment. If it's just worthy lectures, it's boring and goes unseen. Professors can make students read their books. Reporters and editors can't. Thus everything in our business is, and must be, up for constant re-assessment and change.
The questions are related: solving the traffic issue can help solve the monetization problem. And they're different: a rich owner, or a non-profit organization, may decide to monetize something despite low traffic. Beyond these two is the real question of journalism: what we now call the "content" issue, of how you discern and explain what's important and true.
As for the 2014 version of the eternal questions, let me recommend two recent essays in the consistently interesting LadyBits collection of Medium. LadyBits itself is about to close down move away from Medium, a year after it began—which illustrates the problem these essays describe. But please check them out in detail.
• "Your Newfangled Media Algorithms Are Bullshit," by Erin Biba. Yes they are. Just as it would have been bullshit a generation ago to say that TV Guide was 20 times better than The New Yorker because it had 20 times more subscribers. Sample of Biba's approach to the eternal monetization/traffic questions:
[W]hile I’m all in favor of this new world of media startups, where truly well-intentioned people are trying to figure out how the heck to make money from journalism on the Internet, I just need to step up right now and call bullshit on pretty much all the algorithms. Cause you guys just aren’t understanding the importance of a good writer.
It would be comforting to believe that we live in a world where quality content chosen by experienced editors and authored by talented people will get more clicks than celebrity gossip, fear-mongering headlines, and snake oil salesmen peddling the next generation of tech bubble pyramid schemes. But that’s almost never the case....
Medium stopped curating a universal homepage where people browsing Medium.com would be exposed to the best writing on the site. That meant that the people who were coming across LadyBits content because it was good, who wouldn’t normally have been exposed because they weren’t searching for feminist tech perspectives, weren’t finding us. Our traffic fell by about 50%, as did our income.
Naturally any comments like these from writers come across as special pleading. "We're doing great work. You should love us more!" But whether that's part of these writers' tone, or mine, these essays are raising today's version of the contradictions every one of our predecessors has wrestled with. We'll figure out some balance now, and then it will all change once again.
This is the story of a man, and a region, and of the tradeoffs that go into the modern movement of industries. What did it take to bring an advanced-tech steel mill, a helicopter factory, a drone plant, and a major new tire works to a corner of the country where the unemployment rate is very high and many educational and sociological indicators are very low? And how much better off is the region for the arrival of these new enterprises? What did it give up, and what did it gain?
The Black Prairie also coincides with the "Black Belt" of these two states in the historical and sociological sense of the term, a region with a high concentration of slave-labor plantations before the Civil War and of African-American population ever since then. One part of this Black Prairie has renamed itself the "Golden Triangle," as shown below and as reported in our previous dispatches. It's the area between the cities of Columbus, West Point, and Starkville, and it is where these new factories have come.
The background on our story starts here, with a roundup of some of the industries that have come to the Golden Triangle. It continues here, on the near-impossibility of untangling the influences of history, international economic trends, institutional and corporate culture, and individual mistakes or insights in understanding why things "succeed" or "fail" in a given area. It continues here, about the particular burden of race in explaining American events in general and Mississippi developments in particular. It is complemented here and here, with reports by Deb Fallows on the ambitious educational efforts underway at a public school in the Golden Triangle. And it will continue this afternoon in a broadcast version on Marketplace and later with at least one more installment by me, about Mississippi's version of "career technical" education.
On Marketplace today you'll hear about, and from, a Golden Triangle figure named Joe Max Higgins, along with his colleague Brenda Lathan and others. This is more about what they have done, and how, and to what effect.
Reinvention and resilience across the nation Read more
That's Higgins's license plate, at the top of this item. He obviously loves spelling out the "2EQLAST" joke: In the economic development business, coming in second equals coming in last. You get the deal, or you don't—and there's no reward for a near miss or giving it a good try. It's a subtler version of the standard signature line in his email messages: "Live every second as if your ASS is on fire."
You've heard talk like this from any number of football coaches, and Higgins's talk about his region's prospect is very much that of a coach. Two examples, of many possibilities:
• On what he thought when he considered moving to the Golden Triangle from Arkansas, a dozen years ago:
"When the headhunter called and said I want you to look at a position in Mississippi, I said you gotta be kidding me! I hear 'Mississippi,' and I hear poverty, despair, no future, and no hope for a future.
"Then we drove through here, the azaleas were in boom; it was pretty. My wife said we should at least look the place over. We looked at what God gave 'em, and what they were doing with it. And I said, There's no reason in the world these folks aren't winning! But they're not."
Within "they're not" was the whole range of local economic woes, from a starting point of low income and high unemployment, to a recent wave of factory closures among the low-tech, low-wage small firms that have moved to the South from the Depression era onward.
Higgins went back to the headhunter. "I said, here’s what I want: Audited financial statements, budgets, all this kind of stuff. I spent weeks just looking at stuff. Came to conclusion, these guys should be hitting home runs, but they’re not even getting to the plate. That's an opportunity." So he signed on.
• On what has happened since then, Higgins showed us a very detailed chart of all the industries that have included the Golden Triangle in their site selection during his time here, the number that went ahead, what that meant in terms of capital investment and tax revenues, and what it's meant in jobs. To put it in perspective:
"If you take it strictly on investment, deals we won versus deals we lost, we're batting .442! And some of those deals we lost are ones we said, go away, we're not interested. But now, in jobs, we're batting .241. So how good are we, really? Two-forty-one is maybe better than most, but it won't get you into the hall of fame, not unless you can play second base like a champ. But .442 will get you into the Hall!" And on to an argument about why the average had to go up.
Everything about Joe Max Higgins's talk, walk, body language, and comportment is go, go, go; do, do, do. A recent profile of him by William Browning in the Columbus-based Catfish Alley magazine pointed out that Higgins, who is burly by anyone's standards, used to go through two six-packs of Diet Coke per day. Now he has backed down to just eating packs of an "energy powder" called Spark. Here he was earlier this month:
* * *
The Golden Triangle's first big win was its certification as a TVA "Megasite" ten years ago. The Megasite system was a way for TVA to speed investment within its region by pre-clearing certain sites as being project-ready. They had the infrastructure, they had the permits, they had enough contiguous land, and everything else. As a Federal Reserve report described them:
The Tennessee Valley Authority coined the term in 2004 for sites in the TVA region that could be deemed worthy of large-scale development—1,000 acres in size, environmentally clean, and accessible to transportation and utilities, among other criteria.
For more about the Megasite program, you can see this and this from the TVA; for more about what it meant to the Golden Triangle, you can see this, from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. For instance, the headline of the Fed Reserve assessment is, "Megasites Spur Big Turnaround for Mississippi Region."
The point for now is that Higgins and his colleagues at the "Link" development organization for the Golden Triangle threw themselves all-in to the competition to be awarded Megasite status. As he put it:
"The TVA was tired of every beanfield, cotton field, corn field in anytown USA saying, 'We're going to have the next Toyota-Nissan-Mercedes plant!' So they hired a prominent national consultant to design the criteria for certification.
"Everybody showed up. The could be’s, the wannabes, the never-were's, and thought-they-were's, they all showed up." All the candidate regions were asked to provide simulations of how they would handle major new investments, and to provide specs on every economic, infrastructure, labor-market, and environmental consequence of economic growth.
"They had a two-foot-high book of specs," Higgins said. "We worked 12 hours a day, six days a week. Optioning the sites, doing the soil borings, everything." To cut to the conclusion, ten years ago this August the TVA certified its first two Megasites. One was Hopkinsville, Kentucky, and the other was near the Golden Triangle airport in Columbus.
"The worm turned then," Higgins told me. "That TVA decision was the inciting incident that changed this community forever. I’m serious. Before that, I’m working little projects. I’m working a sweet potato plant here, and a small, small automotive plant there. That was it. To be honest, when I took this job I thought I’ll hit a couple of singles, maybe a double, and then I’ll get a bigger better job somewhere else.
"The Megasite was the incident that made us believe we could win."
Soon after that, Higgins and his team got their first big commitment, with the $600+ million steel mill from SeverCorr, now called Severstal. Then they began applications for a second Megasite, which also succeeded. (The TVA has certified only eight in all, including the two in Columbus.) Then on through the list of other successful industrial recruitments, which in all have brought some $5 billion in total investment, and something like 5,600 new jobs, to an area where the unemployment rate, even with this new work, is still around 15 percent.
* * *
What has it cost, and what has it brought? I can't claim to offer the full reckoning, but here is a summary, for follow-up in another installment.
• It's not just money. The latest big investment news for the region is from Yokohama Tire, which is building a $300 million new plant near West Point, the most depressed part of the Golden Triangle area. It will employ 500 people when it opens next year, toward a planned total of 2,000.
As part of the courtship process, Higgins's group arranged a site visit by the Yokohama corporate high command: helicopter tours of the area; green tea and hot, moist towels to refresh the visitors at each stop; galoshes to protect their shoes from the Black Prairie mud after a rainstorm.
During the aerial tour, Higgins took Yokohama's chairman over the ruins of what had been for nearly a century the economic foundation of West Point. This was a meat packing plant, locally owned for decades by the Bryan family and then taken over by the firm that eventually closed it, Sara Lee. When it shut down it put fully a tenth of the city's population out of work.
"I told the chairman [of Yokohama] that this was an area that placed a lot of stress on long-term relationships," Higgins told me. "People worked for Bryan for generations. When that plant left, it tore the heart out of the whole community. I said, you can be the phoenix rising up, for the next generations."
Hokey, yes. But Higgins said that the helicopter then did several circles around the plant, while the chairman stared down at the devastation. "He looked over at me, and nodded," Higgins said. "I told the pilot, We can go now." (Below, a Google Earth screenshot of the now-being-demolished remains of Bryan/Sara Lee.)
• But it's largely money. Higgins says that the area doesn't offer, and the TVA and EPA won't condone, any waivers from environmental standards. And with the obvious exception of the flame-belching Severstal mill, the industries that are coming are relatively high-tech and clean.
What it does offer is substantial state and county subsidy for infrastructure and construction costs, and tax breaks. For instance, here is the Federal Reserve's summary of what went into Severstal:
From the state, the company got a $25 million grant and $10 million loan for infrastructure plus a bunch of tax credits and breaks on sales taxes and other state taxes. The county contributed the land, a $5 million infrastructure grant and a cut of about 40 percent on real estate taxes. Together, the incentives were worth about $100 million.
The PACCAR plant, which makes engines for one-tenth of the long-haul trucks you see on American roads, got similar incentives totaling about $40 million.
• Can these be worth it? The argument from Higgins and his LINK organization is that from the time groundbreaking begins on the plants, they are returning more money locally—city, county, state, school district—in direct payments than the (amortized) cost of these subsidies, apart from the eventual indirect effect of the jobs and spillover activities. After the ten-year mark, which the first plants are nearing, many of the tax benefits phase out. According to Higgins, Lowndes County, which is where most of the factories have located so far, will get $10 million in taxes from them this year, of a county budget totaling $40 million. The school district, he said, will receive another $13 million.
Joe Max Higgins has made the "incentives more than pay for themselves!" argument so often, and so publicly, in such detail, for so many years that I assume it would have been debunked if it was hyped or untrue. "Part of the 'Northern narrative' on what we're doing here is that we're just buying industries," he told me. "That might work if you were talking about a company that is not very sophisticated and doesn't have a lot of resources. But your Nissans and your Toyotas and your Airbus? You think they're going to sacrifice their business for some little tax deal? That's bullshit."
* * *
Who is being helped? The full answer is beyond my ken. Here are two things I could observe.
• The biggest industrial employers, Severstal and PACCAR, say the racial balance of their employees is "representative of the region." The region is slightly more black than white; on the visits I made—two to the steel mill, one to the engine factory—the workforce appeared slightly more white than black, but slightly rather than heavily. Certainly it was closer to being racially diverse in the fashion of a military unit, than being overwhelmingly white in the fashion of many corporations or, especially, high tech firms. This question is so consequential that I'll return to it, in talking about the role Eastern Mississippi Community College is playing in preparing underskilled local people of all races for forthcoming jobs at the Yokohama works.
• The median income in these areas ranges from slightly below to very far below the national level. As mentioned earlier, the median U.S. household income is around $50,000 per year. It's barely half that in much of West Point. Here's an interactive map showing income levels.
The average earning for hourly employees at Severstal, according to Joe Max Higgins, is around $80,000 before benefits. At PACCAR it's less but still well above the median household income in the area. Some of the line employees I spoke with had come back to the area after holding jobs elsewhere. One I met had previously worked at Sara Lee and then came to the steel mill. Several others had always lived in the vicinity.
"I'm not even interested in factories that aren't going to pay a lot more than people are already making here," Joe Max Higgins told me. "Why would I be? If you are going to create jobs at that level, you are forever dooming your area."
He mentioned a conversation he'd had with the mayor of a small town in Tennessee. "I'll never forget when he told me, I can't wait for the blue jeans plant to close in town!' You never hear a politician say that. He said, 'We got to get those ladies to community college and get their skills up. I can't run my town on minimum wage.' I thought that was the deepest thing I ever heard."
* * *
There are more ramifications to the saga, but these suffice for now. Let me know your major complaints and questions and I will try to address them in upcoming installments. Next up from Deb Fallows: the surprising story of the Palmer Home for Children, in Columbus.
Portion of the cover of the book that has helped keep Random House going. (Wikipedia)
I've long been wary of Amazon, for reasons that have come to a head with its highly publicized struggle with Hachette. This recent Atlantic item by Jeremy Greenfield lays out the stakes well. To summarize:
In the short run, Amazon can argue that it's working purely "in the customer's best interest" by squeezing publishers to agree to its terms. In the longer run, the result will be a further destructive "de-bundling" of the book market and book industry, skewing the supply even more heavily to lower-risk blockbuster books.
How is publishing "bundled"? One example: Over the past few years, the Random House empire has regularly praised heaven for the existence of E.L. James's Fifty Shades saga, which has underwritten a lot of other projects the house has supported. (Say, like this one.) The Amazon-vs.-publishers struggle is a version of the arguments about Wal-Mart's effects—"better" for customers day by day, much worse for traditional downtowns—or about lower-cost, mass-produced fast food. These big questions of measurable efficiency, versus other unmeasurable or longer-term components of social well-being, have been with our country from the start. (I went into them a lot in More Like Us.)
But on the other side, here is a pro-Amazon note from a publisher. The author says that Amazon's radically more efficient business practices have been a boon to him, in his role as a small publisher (of DVDs), compared with traditional retailers or distributors. He writes:
I am seeing the Amazon-ire over Hachette gathering steam in some quarters, and certain I share concerns (Oh wait, I was concerned about this years ago!)
What I am not seeing is anyone talking about the actual dollars and cents, and offer the below as hard data on what our experience is with Amazon and other retailers and distributors....
Like many, perhaps the majority of products on Amazon, our DVDs are sold under Amazon's consignment program. They are branded as Sold by Amazon, but as a matter of how the money actually changes hands, it's a consignment arrangement.
As needed, Amazon sends us a stock up request for various numbers of our various titles. We pay shipping, but we do not pay storage in Amzon's warehouse.
We set the MSRP [Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price], but Amazon sets the discount. Paradoxically(?) the faster a title is selling, the deeper Amazon discounts. My presumption is this is done algorithmically. We've seen our titles discounted anywhere from 0% to ~35%.
Regardless of Amazon's discounting at the end of each month Amazon pays us 45% of MSRP. This is done automatically and a full accounting of sales, monies owed and paid is available online through our consignment retailer interface, which also gives us complete control over the product description and some (but sadly not sufficient) control over the product metadata.
If our DVDs sat on Amazon's warehouse shelves too long Amazon would send them back to us at our cost, but this has never happened. We can also make stock-up requests if we think our inventory at Amazon's warehouse is insufficient to meet upcoming demand.
By comparison, if we were to do business with Baker & Taylor or other "traditional" middlemen they would pay us no more than 40% MSRP, pay invoices in 90-180 days, over order titles and then back-charge us for returns.
In short, Amazon is the best deal going for a small publisher: a better price and better reach than any other options. I make no presumption that Amazon is 'the bad guy" in their dispute with Hachette, or even that there is a bad guy. If Hachette has a better deal somewhere else, they should take it.
I assume that Hachette's retort would be: When certain players become dominant enough, it is cutesy rather than realistic to say "If you don't like our terms, go find a better deal somewhere else." No one else is in a position to offer comparable deals. Of course the history of technology is of "impregnably" dominant figures suddenly being disrupted. Anything anyone says about Amazon was said with 100 times more rancor about Microsoft a mere 15 years ago. This era too will presumably pass; the question is what gets disrupted or eliminated in the meantime.
For now, I'll thank the reader for this side of the story. And I'll note that whenever possible I've been buying and ordering books from independent sellers; ordering electronic versions in the B&N Nook version or another ePub format rather than Amazon Kindle (each sluices into my iPad); and directing book-related links to the author's site, or the publisher's, or some local retailer's, rather than to the Amazon listing. All tiny gestures toward keeping the book-producing infrastructure diverse.
Update A reader writes in with a different experience and interpretation:
Amazon is indeed a wonder and a terror. Our general merchandise (but mostly pool accessories and costumes) business has come to depend on Amazon for approximately 70% of our revenue. Not only has this driven prices (and profits) the rock-bottom, it can become devastating when they change their rules. Several times they have updated the data requirements for product listings without providing enough time for us to comply. The results have been hundreds or thousands of products "hidden" from their marketplace as we put other projects on hold to update these old listings.
There's a lot of money to be made there. But in my experience they have very little regard for their merchants. Their domination of online retail feels very precarious, for them and merchants. But, hey, I guess consumers are able to buy products at 5% over wholesale.
Students at Xinjiang Provincial University, in Urumqi, before the Han-Uighur ethnic violence there in 2009. Students are on the left, and their Mandarin-as-second-language teacher is at right. (James Fallows)
Recent news out of China has involved crackdowns and seemingly looking-for-trouble international provocations, as mentioned here yesterday. The latest occasion for the crackdowns, including the scenes of jampacked subways that dominated many news shows yesterday, was the wave of recent terrorist violence in the vast western-frontier Xinjiang region of China.
Xinjiang is far closer to the Central Asian 'Stans than it is to Beijing or Shanghai, and its original dominant ethnic group is the mainly Muslim, ethnically Turkic Uighurs, who look more like the people you might see across the border in Afghanistan or Tajikistan than those in the rest of China.
American coverage of violence in Xinjiang seems to alternate, switching between two simplifications we inevitably apply to foreign news. Sometimes attacks there are portrayed as part of worldwide jihad—this is a Muslim region, and during the Bush-Cheney era the U.S. joined China in classifying a major Xinjiang group as part of the worldwide terrorist threat. Sometime they are portrayed as part of dissident or regional resistance to central Chinese government control.
In a new essay in the LA Review of Books, James Millward of Georgetown University, one of America's real experts on the region, explains the tangles of Xinjiang's situation. Both of the standard views are partly true, but both are mainly beside the point, he argues. For instance (spelling the name Uyghur):
What is the relationship between the civil rights problem [for people in Xinjiang] and the terrorism problem? Are they linked? Some say so. Uyghur rights groups, while deploring the attacks, say that Chinese oppressive policies have led to the outbreak of Uyghur violence.
The Chinese government opposes this view, arguing that the sources of religious extremism and terrorism are external and unrelated to its own policies....
It’s likely that the truth lies in between: Chinese policies and never-ending crackdowns, especially since the 2009 riots, have created a climate in which some Uyghurs are more likely to heed twisted, pseudo-religious ideologies that advocate killing innocents to send a political message....
Why then the repeated gratuitous insults against Uyghur culture — false claims that Uyghur is a primitive language, thoughtless dismantling of Uyghur-language education, suspicion and persecution of private Uyghur-language instruction, compulsion of government workers to eat during Ramadan, prohibition of doppa caps and scarves?
I suspect that the Chinese leadership and some Chinese scholars who advise them are uncomfortable with Uyghur cultural uniqueness. They increasingly feel that this distinctiveness is itself a source of the problem....
Even while the PRC claims that the Uyghur terrorist problem is foreign in origin, much of China’s effort to combat terrorism is directed domestically at Uyghur cultural expression, thus worsening the Uyghur civil rights problem.
The subject is likely to remain in the news, and Millward's essay is worth reading now and keeping on hand as a guide to the complexities.
For some previous installments, from when we were living in China and the Han-Uighur riots of 2009 were underway, please see this, this, and this, with links to other posts.